"I don't like lying to my team," Nick stated with as much anger as he could muster under the circumstances, but Lester gave him the usual tight-lipped smile that bordered on disdain.
"And what part of Helen shot you don't you understand?"
"Oh, I understand that well enough but I still don't see why you won't let me rejoin the team...or at least tell them I'm still alive."
Lester shook his head, eyes rolling in definite disdain this time. "It's like dealing with a small child." And Nick wondered if Lester spoke those words out loud on purpose purely to aggravate him even more. He was certainly doing a great job if that was the case. Lester continued. "Perhaps words of less than three syllables?" He took a breath, and even that sounded irritable. "Your insane wife shot you. If she learns you are still alive, she will find a way to shoot you again. And next time you might not be so lucky."
"Lucky?" Nick blinked hard. "You consider this lucky... that I was shot by my wife and left for dead?"
"At this moment I can understand the attraction myself," Lester murmured under his breath but still audible enough for Nick to catch.
"Oh, so you'd like to shoot me too! Is that it?"
"If I'd wanted you dead, Cutter, then I wouldn't have had the best surgeon in the country flown in to save you. At great risk I might add because your wife might be insane but she isn't stupid."
Nick tried to sit up but the pain in his chest was pure agony. He had to admit that he had been lucky that Helen--for all her vaunted intelligence--has shot him straight through the middle of the chest instead of a little off to the left. She'd missed his heart and lungs but still caused enough trauma to keep him in intensive care for almost a month due to complications. Another two weeks had passed since his awakening, with the team still believing he was dead and moving on without him. They had a new leader now, Danny Quinn, along with the relatively new military officer who had replaced Ryan--Captain Becker--and Doctor Page, who was still making her scientific contributions.
"Look. Lying here in a hospital bed, hidden away, is not getting us any answers," Nick sighed.
"Such as why the mad woman tried to kill you...and me, I might add."
"No. Let's not forget you," Nick ground out because Sir James Lester was the epitome of self-absorption and vanity with his expensive Italian suits and silk ties. Perhaps Oliver Leek had made it all about Lester, wanting to see the head of ARC operations subservient to him--and attempting to kill him when he realized that it was never going to happen--but Lester was just another person standing in the way as far as Helen was concerned. "She said it was something I was responsible for in the future... that I helped to create the future predators that eventually wipe out the human race."
He noticed the way Lester raised his hand automatically to his chest to rub at it, wondering if the slash from the predator attack in the ARC had left a mental as well as physical scar.
"I'm afraid she's gone a step beyond caring about the human race. We just rescued Temple and Miss Maitland from a pack of ravenous velociraptors in the Cretaceous period." His mouth twisted. "And isn't that something I never imagined saying." He took another breath. "It seems the answer to what killed the first known family of hominids at site 333 in the Rift Valley, four million years ago, might just have been answered."
"Helen." Nick stated ominously, shaking his head. "But why? Unless she plans to wipe out humanity once and for all. In which case, what stopped her?"
"And what would be the point of that anyway? No humanity, no Helen Cutter."
Nick raised his head to follow Lester as he paced the small, private hospital room. "Except she would be existing out of time when it happened. Theoretically, she could end up as the only human being in existence."
"Theoretically but, again. The point?"
Nick let his head drop back onto the pillow, exhausted by even this much effort and debate. "I don't know. Maybe she simply wanted to see what would evolve to take our place."
He recalled Helen trying to convince him to join her, looking at history and evolution like it was a game that could be played over and over until she was happy with the end result. No doubt, if what replaced humanity was not to her liking then she'd alter history again until it was, but Nick was not convinced it was that easy. Certainly, the fact that they existed in this room debating it proved that she'd not accomplished that goal yet.
"Yes, well if she had planned on annihilating humanity then we probably have Danny Quinn to thank for stopping her." As always the words came out with a certain level of distaste, as if Lester hated to be beholden to anybody.
"He went in after her?"
"As far as we know."
"But the anomaly to that period closed before anyone could verify." He looked away and spoke a little softer. "Or before Mr. Quinn could return."
Which meant Quinn was trapped four million years in the past--or dead.
Over time, Nick had deciphered Lester's tones, knowing which meant he was truly pissed off with events, and which caused him a sadder kind of grief. His sarcastic words might come across hard and uncaring but his voice and a momentary bleakness in his eyes often gave away the truth that he hated losing people--soldiers or civilians--and not just for the amount of paperwork it would generate.
"James. I need to get out of here. I need to go back to my research." Nick knew it was a manipulative to use Lester's first name but it worked as the other man sighed in resignation.
"I'll make arrangements to have you moved to a convalescent room within the ARC. At least that way we have a better chance of keeping you alive."
Nick raised his eyebrows sarcastically because that was where he got shot and almost killed in the first place.
"Yes. Yes, I know the irony behind that statement but it's still more secure than your house, and it means I don't have to request additional guards. You are aware how much each one of them costs me?"
Nick grinned weakly as beneath all that sarcasm he could read Lester's genuine concern for his safety. It was a nice feeling.
"Oh very observant, Temple," came Lester's sarcastic retort.
"Wait! You were dead." Connor took several hasty steps backwards from where Nick sat in a wheelchair--a condition of his release from the private hospital. "He's a clone."
Nick opened his mouth to answer but Lester got there first. "For someone so intelligent you can be really stupid."
"I wasn't dead, Connor...though I was dying. Apparently I still had a pulse when they checked in the ambulance."
Rather than confront him, Abby stepped towards Lester, her blue eyes filled with betrayal. "Why didn't you tell us?"
Nick wasn't certain why he spoke up in Lester's defense. "To protect me. Helen had already tried to kill me once, and I was too weak to defend myself against another attack if she discovered I was still alive." He closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness swept over him. Perhaps Lester had been right and it was a little too soon to be going back to work but he couldn't stand another day staring at the bland walls and daytime television. He opened his eyes to see all of them looking at him with concern. "I needed to remain hidden."
"Yes, and if you hadn't been so stubborn then you would still be hidden," Lester added sourly.
"I needed to remain hidden at the time," Nick stressed, "But now I need to get back to my work. We need to find out how the future predators evolved so we can put a stop to them before they can kill everyone."
"Abby has a theory about that," Connor stated, but Nick could see only confusion in her eyes so he turned back to Connor. Connor raised his hands into a box shape, as if framing his words. "Think Morlocks."
"There was no mention of human DNA."
"They thought the sample was contaminated." Connor looked guilty.
"But if the creatures are devolved from humans then they must have come from a lot further in the future than the place described in your reports. Could you be wrong about the age of the ruins?"
Becker shook his head. "No. Judging by the vehicles abandoned in the streets, we're talking decades not centuries--or millennia."
Nick nodded. "So it's improbable that the cloning technology came from that time period."
"Which means Helen knew the location of another anomaly linked even further into the future."
"Or she opened it," Abby stated, looking to Connor in anticipation.
"The hand held!" Connor stated. "She must have programmed it with future anomalies."
Becker looked to Connor. "The console you found in the ruins of the ARC. If we took a power source--"
"No need." Connor grinned. "I can replicate it here."
"Good man!" Nick stated, sagging back into his wheelchair in exhaustion.
Lester indicated towards one of his guards. "And now I think we should get Professor Cutter to his room to rest."
For once, Nick was too tired to argue.
It took several weeks to feed all the data into the 3D image generator, aware that every moment left Danny lost in the past but until they had all the details they could not locate the second anomaly that Helen--then Danny--had jumped through from the Cretaceous period. Throughout that time, Nick grew stronger.
He thought he would resent the amount of time Lester spent with him as he recovered but he found he had grown to enjoy Lester's acerbic comments and unique insights. He liked his company too, discovering that Lester had a love of the finer arts that matched his own. He had lost count of the number of times he had caught Lester slipping out of his office when duty called when Nick hadn't even noticed him enter. At first he felt uncomfortable knowing Lester had sat and perhaps simply watched him work, not saying a word to interrupt.
"Why are you here?" he had asked one time he had spotted him.
"Because if I stay in my office all the idiots know where to find me."
"I'm sure they know you're here too."
"Undoubtedly, except they won't risk disturbing you."
It had made sense and after that Lester even took to bringing papers to read and sign.
Gradually, Nick discovered that Lester made a good sounding board for some of his more outlandish ideas. Beneath all of the authoritative management presence was a clever mind, one that grasped new concepts faster than Nick had wanted to believe. He had to admit that in the early days it had been easier to dismiss Lester as just a management tool and bean counter; someone he had to fight for every pound spent on the project--figuratively rather than literally as some of the equipment and facilities came to thousands if not millions of pounds, and he had no intention of fighting that many battles with Lester. Seeing the softer side of Lester--the bright intelligence and caring hidden just beneath the surface--made him more appreciative of the hoops Lester jumped through in the world of politics just to keep the project--and Nick's team--alive. Plus he really did have a way of twisting Nick's ideas that actually added clarity rather than detracted from it.
Lester was in Nick's laboratory when Connor burst in.
"I've done it!" Connor exclaimed.
"Hopefully it's nothing fatal," Lester stated drolly but Nick could tell from the intensity of his gaze that he had a good idea of what IT was and was just as excited as Connor.
"The Anomaly Map?"
Connor's response was a boyish grin. Nick stood up a little too quickly, feeling the twinge of still sore muscle and pulling scar tissue but ignored all the physical discomfort to follow Connor into the main laboratory. Lester was only a step behind him as they reached the console. With a flourish, Connor waved his hand over the top of the console, plucking the virtual image right out of the horizontal screen--and the most beautiful sight grew before Nick. He'd created this before with Dr. Page out of tubes and wire, needing to see a 3D representation in order to visualize the pattern it represented, and he'd discovered that the pattern was man-made rather than a natural phenomenon. It confirmed his as yet unspoken theory that Helen had gone further into the future than she'd implied, beyond a world seemingly ravaged by the future predators to something potentially better or perhaps worse--depending on Helen's point of view, which was warped according to Lester. Nick had to agree with him. Whatever Helen had seen she hadn't liked but that didn't mean it was a bad thing.
Nick glanced over the anomaly map with a practiced eye but missed the connection until Lester uttered a, "There!" pointing at a particular anomaly that had opened in the Rift Valley close to site 333, four million years ago. "Captain Becker, if you wouldn't mind sending a team to fetch Mr. Quinn home I'd be most appreciative. His disappearance has been an administrative nightmare."
"I'm going too," Nick stated.
Lester raised both eyebrows. "I hardly think that's necessary."
"Go with us," Nick implored. "See it first hand for once rather than reading about it in reports. Take a look at the dawn of Man."
Nick could see Lester was wavering and wondered how often he had stepped back from a desire to see what was out there. It wasn't an issue of fear as Nick knew Lester didn't lack courage. Lester had faced a future predator alone using just his wits to save him, and come out on top with just a scar across his chest to show for the encounter. He'd led a group of soldiers into a confrontation with Oliver Leek. That it had turned out to be the wrong address was immaterial for no one but Leek had known that at the time.
"Running for my life from a pack of velociraptors doesn't exactly hold much appeal." But the curiosity lighting his eyes told a different story.
"I'm sure Captain Becker's men will provide suitable firepower to prevent any concerns there," Nick added smoothly with just a touch of sarcasm because Lester had already proved that he trusted Becker's men to protect him when he went after Leek.
Lester hummed in semi-agreement. "The suit and dress shoes will have to go. Not the best choice for the Cretaceous, I suspect."
Nick grinned because he knew Lester had at least one change of casual clothes locked away in his office. If nothing else, Lester was prepared for most any eventuality and Nick doubted it was the first time he had entertained the idea of going with them on a field trip, though usually he stayed on this side of the anomaly. These past weeks had revealed the reason as more of a necessity than a preference. It all intrigued Lester and was the reason why he had fought so hard when Christine Johnson had threatened to replace him.
Two hours later, Connor opened the anomaly to the Cretaceous under the watchful eyes of Becker and his men. No one wanted to be unprepared for any surprise attacks from some predator leaping through. The larger of the quarantine rooms had been locked down just in case and Connor would use the anomaly device to seal the anomaly behind them once they had stepped through, to prevent anything going back to their time but allow them a fast retreat if necessary. Nick glanced across to look at Lester, finding himself admiring Lester without the all-too-familiar smart suit, dress shirt and tie. The olive-colored cargo trousers, t-shirt and jacket with hiking boots--that were obviously not brand new but well worn in--made Lester appear so different from the officious administrator of the ARC. Nick liked the change in not just attire but in expression too. He liked the way lester was regarding the anomaly in a whole new light, understanding Lester's renewed curiosity from his own experiences of actually stepping through to other time periods rather than waiting on the other side.
"Ready?" Becker asked and Lester nodded, for once refraining from some sarcastic comment.
Becker and his men stepped through with guns at the ready followed by Abby and Connor. Nick stepped through next, turning quickly because for some reason, he wanted to see Lester's expression as he stepped into a whole new part of Earth's history. He was not disappointed, feeling a shiver of excitement race through him as Lester's face smoothed away the almost constant scowl in awe. Straight ahead in the distance was a small herd of hylaeosaurus, armored plant-eaters. Seeing these creatures of the past in the clinical surroundings of the ARC enclosures was not the same as watching them grazing through the woodland undergrowth of their natural habitat.
"This way," Nick stated eventually, having drawn his gaze back to the anomaly detector.
For some reason that only Connor could understand--something to do with electromagnetic field overlaps--they couldn't simply open the next anomaly where they stood. They had to move at least a mile away or there was no guarantee that they'd end up where they wanted to go. It was something worth investigating at a later date but, for now, Danny Quinn was still lost in the past and, hopefully, waiting on a rescue. Nick's only fear was they would arrive years before or after Danny's arrival, just as they had done months ago when they lost Captain Ryan, realizing too late that long-abandoned camp found on an earlier exploration was the one they were currently setting up.
They moved quickly through the ancient pines in the direction Quinn would have taken as he raced to stop Helen from destroying humanity, eventually reaching the edge of a small clearing that was obviously being used as a nesting ground for something. Harsh cries made them all look up to see pterosaurs circling high above.
"Sir," one of the soldiers whispered.
He held up a device similar to the one Connor had found in the future and had repaired back at the ARC. Something must have startled Helen into dropping it and it must have been hidden well enough that she saw no reason to take the risk going back for it. No doubt she believed it would still be waiting here for her on her return--if she returned, for he had only a theory rather than proof that someone outside of time could survive the annihilation of the species that gave birth to them. All he had to go on was his own experiences of recalling Claudia Brown and a past that had been altered--one that he remembered so clearly but had not existed for those on the other side of the anomaly.
The unit didn't look too battered by the elements so they had at least traveled only a few weeks at best into the future within this period. More worrying was the tiny movements of the eggs in the nearby nest, proving they were close to hatching. No doubt the parent pterosaurs would be very territorial and protective.
"It's an ideal spot to open an anomaly as it'll be easier to spot any predators lurking within the tree line on the return journey...But," he emphasized, "we'll have to cross the open ground quickly to avoid the pterosaurs. This is their nesting ground, and those eggs are about to hatch."
Becker nodded tightly. "Opening the anomaly is going to attract them. We need to be on the move as soon as it forms." He gave orders to his men and Nick was not surprised that he made no plans to leave a guard or two behind. They wouldn't stand a chance alone against a pack of velociraptors or even the pterosaurs and would be forced to abandon their post--retreat or die.
As if on cue, behind them Nick heard the familiar barking call of velociraptors. "They might have picked up our scent," he stated calmly.
"Then I'd suggest we open this anomaly and get out of here rather quickly." Lester's frown was back in place but Nick could hardly blame him for being concerned.
"Connor?" Nick looked to the younger man and saw him straighten up, readying himself.
"Now?" He looked surprised.
"When you're ready."
He watched as Connor pointed the device towards the clearing, all of them moving swiftly towards it as terrible screeches came from above and sharp cries from the forest surrounding them. Becker and two soldiers dived through with guns at the ready while the remaining two soldiers covered the rear. Nick raced through with Lester by his side, just behind Abby and Connor. He turned at a human cry and saw one of the soldiers stumble through with a gash across his shoulder; the other soldier was still firing as he stepped backwards through behind him.
Unfreezing, Connor locked down the anomaly before anything followed them through while Abby moved towards the injured soldier, already pulling a medical kit out of her rucksack.
Lester was looking at the sealed anomaly with something akin to horror. He turned to Nick. "I thought I mentioned that running from a pack of velociraptors held no appeal?"
"It was one of the giant bird things, sir."
Lester turned to the soldier and glared, only to turn that annoyance on Nick when he snorted out a small laugh at the horrified look on Lester's face. In truth, he was relieved that it was only a minor gash that Abby could deal with the antiseptics and antibiotics in her field kit. He'd seen far worse. Bile rose in his throat as his thoughts drifted to Stephen, and Nick had to turn away as the image was replaced with Lester.
When had he come to care so much about Lester? When had he started to look forward to his visits to his laboratory? Or smile when he heard the sarcastic tone of Lester berating someone so subtly that they often didn't realize they'd just been insulted. And when had he started to notice that Lester saved the more blatant and vocal of the insults for those he cared about--for Connor and Abby, and especially for him.
He realized he was staring at Lester around the same time that he noticed Lester was staring right back at him, with eyes dark and unreadable as if determined to conceal his emotions. Nick's first thought was that maybe he didn't want to show how much all of this had scared him but Lester was not that good an actor. No. This was something else and in the back of his mind Nick had the strangest feeling that Lester had revealed far more to him than he was showing now. Flashes of blurry memories came to him from his time spent drugged and barely conscious while his body slowly healed. Soft sounding words and the warm touch of another's hand on him, grounding him when he feared he would be lost in pain and darkness forever.
The images were gone as quickly as they came, leaving him feeling strangely bereft and with an urge to move closer to Lester for...what exactly? Comfort? Security? Lester didn't feel like a father figure and Nick had always tended to buck authority. He'd felt like a friend--or more than a friend.
"Sir, we have two sets of boot tracks leading that way...the larger set twice." Becker's words snapped both of them back to the present--or the past as the case might be--leaving Nick focusing back on the seemingly barren landscape.
"Well then we'd best get started in that direction," Lester replied before joining Becker.
With one last glance at the sealed anomaly, Nick followed on with two soldiers falling in behind him. Ahead he could hear Abby laughing fondly at Connor's attempt to navigate a narrow fissure as they climbed steadily up towards the crest of the rock formation. Every now and then he would see one of the soldiers crouching down to examine the ground before pointing forward. It seemed Danny--and Helen--had made a straight course towards the crest. Less than an hour later Nick understood why. In the valley below, a sparkling stream flowed swiftly along the narrowest part before entering a small lake but it was the scattered bodies of hominids that caught Nick's attention.
This was Site 333, where one of the first known families of early humans had died inexplicably--until now--and Nick could not help but wonder if perhaps it was lucky that they had been too late to change history. However, it did occur to him for one moment that this might have been the source of the changes that subtly altered the world and turned Claudia Brown into Jenny Lewis. It was well known that the whole of the human race evolved from a very small number of hominids--perhaps only a thousand mated pairs in total. Losing just nineteen could easily make a small enough difference in the gene pool.
They climbed down and found something Nick wasn't anticipating--Helen.
"Well that was unexpected." Lester looked on with a glint in his eye but refrained from saying anything tactless even though Nick knew Lester was more than pleased to know Helen would no longer be a thorn in his side. Problem was, there was always going to be someone to take over from her. Another Christine Johnson or another Oliver Leek.
Nick wasn't certain how he felt. He had loved her once though she had managed to destroy the remains of that love with Stephen's death and a bullet through his chest.
Her body lay crushed beneath a creature that should have died out long before the hominids walked the Earth. It was obvious that the full grown velociraptor had followed her and Danny through the anomaly but had met its fate long before it could do more harm to the time period. From Nick's recollection, no one had discovered the fossilized remains of a velociraptor so Nick knew what they had to do. They had to burn both bodies to preserve history.
"Good idea," Becker stated. "Quinn might see the smoke and come investigate. Might make our job of finding him much easier."
"Plus these places get cold once the sun goes down," Nick stated, indicating to where the sun was already moving towards the horizon. "Though I'd suggest we move far away from the... other bodies."
Becker indicated towards the sparse bushes and rocks surrounding them. "Anything we need to watch for in particular."
"Sabre-tooths...possibly. The early humans would have had natural predators, which is why they gradually banded together into family groups."
"Strength in numbers," Lester added, and Nick nodded, pleased that Lester understood.
While two soldiers remained on guard, the rest of them dragged the velociraptor back to the crest of the rock formation overshadowing the valley. Nick went back for Helen, kneeling down beside her broken body and taking a moment to remember the woman he had loved and married all those years ago. A scatter of pebbles made him glance over his shoulder and he was both surprised and comforted by Lester's presence.
"I...wondered if you might need a hand."
"Part of me wants to bury her but then I'd spend the rest of my life worry that some archaeologist might dig up her fossilized remains and the whole history of man's evolution would be thrown into disarray." He still had the occasional sleepless night worrying over Ryan's body--and that of Helen's mercenaries who'd died in the desert--even though he knew the possibility of discovery was millions to one. After all, how many dinosaur skeletons had they found considering these creatures ruled the planet for 350 million years?
Lester snorted softly but Nick knew he understood.
"Why did you come?" Nick asked softly.
"Strange? I seem to recall you asking me." Before Nick could question any deeper, Lester turned away. "Now if I recall the history of this place correctly, they didn't find any complete skeletons here."
"True. The bones may have been scattered by predators."
"SO unless we want our bones scattered too then I'd suggest we start moving. Hmm?"
No one wanted to sit on the down-wind side of the fire where the smell of burning flesh was stronger, so they camped fairly close to each other up-wind. Nick noticed Abby and Connor placing sleeping bags close together and decided no harm would come of doing the same by putting his and Lester's close. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as Becker set up sentry duties, glad that he would not be expected to take a turn for once. Although his injuries had mostly healed, he still felt the debilitating fatigue from the long convalescence. As Lester slipped into the sleeping bag beside his own, Nick smiled. At least he had not put up a fuss about the place seriously lacking decent accommodation.
"I think they look quite sweet together."
Nick blinked open his eyes at the murmuring above him and realized that sometime in the night he and Lester had rolled up against each other. Yet when he examined the feeling of embarrassment it was not for the unintentional spooning but more for the lack of privacy. Before he could scrutinize that realization any deeper, the unfamiliarity of the voice had him sitting up sharply.
Connor was grinning broadly, and even Becker was smiling as Nick looked at the man crouching over him and Lester.
"Quinn!" Lester sat up just as quickly. "Still alive I see. Which is fortunate or this would have been a colossal waste of government resources trying to find you."
Quinn merely grinned. "Good idea lighting that fire. Spotted it miles away and figured it was worth checking out." He looked both relieved and happy to see them but under the circumstances, Nick could understand that completely. As the euphoria of this meeting faded, Quinn eyed Lester curiously, probably because Lester had never stepped through an anomaly before, let alone through two anomalies on a rescue mission. It made Nick wonder again why he had chosen to come, with part of him hoping it was purely because Nick had asked him and for no other reason.
Lester was on his feet by now, brushing down his rumpled clothing. "As our mission here is complete, I'll suggest we start heading back as quickly as possible before we all end up trapped here."
"Or dead." Becker added quietly, gun at the ready. Hunched in the rocks above them were dozens of curious hominids.
"I'd suggest we pack up and move out very slowly," Nick ordered quietly.
"Oh, and try not to kill any of them, Becker. One of these could be your not-so-distant grandfather," Lester added for good measure and Nick was impressed how it made Becker and the soldiers relax a fraction, perhaps enough to stop them from shooting to kill without thinking should the hominids attack.
Trying to remain nonthreatening, they rolled up the small amount of equipment carried in their backpacks and started walking back towards the place where Connor had sealed the anomaly less than a day earlier. The hominids followed at a distance, making all of them nervous even though they seemed peaceful enough. Almost by silent agreement, none of them talked, not wanting to provoke anything with strange sounds.
Becker dropped back between he and Lester, talking softly. "When we reach the anomaly, Quinn and three of my men are going through first to cover us, then Connor and Abby. Once through, head straight for the tree line. Connor will close the anomaly behind us. We'll regroup before making for the other anomaly."
Nick caught Lester's eye as Becker dropped back to cover their rear with the remaining soldier. He could read the anxiousness mixed with something else, almost certain that Lester was biting back on some remark. For the first time Nick wished he hadn't convinced Lester--James--to come with them, concerned for the other man's safety even though James was possibly more capable of taking care of himself than Connor. There was nothing he could do about that now except tighten his lips as he heard the soft movement of James drawing his gun in preparation, glad that he had insisted on carrying a gun and, more importantly, knew how to fire it.
As they crested the last rock formation Nick could see the sparkling glint of the contained anomaly. Ahead of them, Quinn and the soldiers waited for Connor, guns ready as they prepared to step through as soon as the anomaly opened. Nick noted that the soldier with the tightly bandaged gash across his shoulder stood at the rear with Becker. It made sense as it was likely that the velociraptors would pick up the blood scent quickly; the thirty second delay before following could make all the difference on the other side. James had realized it too judging by the tight nod he gave to Becker and the soldier.
"Ready?" He whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
"As I ever will be," came the dry response, forcing a smile out of Nick.
Connor moved up and unsealed the anomaly. Behind them the hominids began to hoot and scream as they picked up rocks and started to throw them. James gasped out sharply, drawing a curse from Nick as the ricochet of a rock fragment opened a cut on his cheek. There was no time to treat it for if they stayed here then they'd be stoned to death--or forced to kill. James had dragged a handkerchief from his pocket and was pressing it against the cut as they ran through the anomaly side-by-side, almost losing their footing in the abrupt change of ground underfoot. With James bleeding, Becker must have decided not to wait before following with the other injured man, coming through hard on their heels. The screech of the pterosaurs had them ducking as they ran hard for the trees, while Connor fumbled with the hand held to close the anomaly behind them before anything could cross over.
Regrouping was more a matter of running past and getting the rest of them moving with them. A mile didn't seem so far a distance when walking in safe woods in their own time period but here, with the distant barking of a velociraptor pack closing in on them fast, it seemed like they were running forever. The first realization that the pack were upon them came with a human cry of pain and the staccato of bullets firing from Becker's gun. More gun shots sounded as the rest of the pack caught up.
Nick gasped as one of the creatures leaped into the air, landing firmly on James's back and taking him down. It reared back, mouth wide and full of razor sharp teeth, ready to snap forward and bite down on James's unprotected head only to jerk twice as first Nick's and then Quinn's bullets struck it. Together they hauled James up from beneath the injured creature, leaving his shredded backpack behind where it was torn into in a frenzy as the other velociraptors began to attack the injured velociraptor.
"Connor! How far?!"
"Almost there! Another forty feet!"
Nick threw James's arm around his shoulder and forced him to run with him, supporting James as best he could while one of Becker's men grabbed up the injured soldier in a fireman's carry. Becker, two soldiers and Quinn flanked the group as they raced the final feet.
Ahead of them, Connor's hands were shaking as he activated the hand held to unseal the anomaly, leaping through as soon as it opened, closely followed by Abby. Nick half-carried James through next with the rest not far behind.
"Shut it down!"
The silence of the quarantine room was broken only by the harsh breathing as Nick dropped to the floor, dragged down by James. He pulled up to a seated position, rolling James and drawing him almost into his lap so he could see his back. The backpack must have taken the worst of the damage from the wickedly curved back claws but the front claws had raked down behind James's shoulders, gouging out a channel of flesh.
One of the guards posted to the quarantine room crouched down beside Nick. "Medics are on their way, sir."
"Thanks." Nick lifted his eyes to survey the rest of the group, closing his eyes and sighing in deep relief to see they were all alive and accounted for. Though James and the other soldier had taken the worst injuries during the attack, all of them seemed to be sporting gashes and bruises from the race through the forest.
"Let's never go back there again," James murmured, breath warm against Nick's thigh.
Nick choked back a laugh and dropped a hand onto the back of James's neck, fingers stroking absent-mindedly through the fine nape hairs. Reluctantly, he released James into the care of the medics, scuttling back on hands and feet to give them room to work. He was surprised when Quinn dropped down beside him, pillowing his elbows on his bent knees, hands still clasped around a hand gun.
"Thanks for coming back for me."
"Not just me you have to thank." Nick eyed him carefully. "The bodies looked fresh when we arrived so I gather it was only hours after Helen killed them."
"It was almost a month here...and it would have been longer if Connor hadn't replicated the console you found in the future."
This time Quinn grimaced, and Nick knew he was wondering how he would have coped if it had been years instead of hours--or if rescue had never come. The medics were ready to move James, having concentrated on the more seriously injured soldier first. Quinn stood up and held a hand down to Nick, who gratefully accepted the boost back onto his feet. As a group they trailed after the stretcher to the medical facilities built within the ARC, aware that every cut would need to be treated carefully. There were strains of pathogens that modern man had no defense against--such as the fungi that had been brought back from one time zone.
By the time Nick had seen to his own minor injuries, James was asleep in the most private of the six bed infirmary with the curtain drawn around him. Unable to resist the urge to check on him, Nick slipped inside the curtained off area and stood looking down at the other man for several long minutes. Sleep and the good drugs had erased the lines of worry, irritation and pain, leaving a far more vulnerable man behind. Nick studied him as carefully as he would any specimen, trying to work out the complexity of his emotions towards James. They had not started off as friends but, over the years they had reached a grudging respect for each other. Except it wasn't so much grudging anymore. Since his own injury at Helen's hand--and the smoke inhalation that had complicated matters--something in his relationship with James had changed or deepened.
He sank to the chair beside the bed.
Nick snatched back his hand as he reached out to touch the still blood-matted hair curling close to the gash from the rock splinter--the proverbial light bulb flashing on in his head as he realized his feelings were not just simple mutual respect anymore. There was a physical attraction too that he had experienced with only a few people in his life--men and women. He had lost three of those to this project: Claudia, Stephen and now Helen, though he could admit now that he had lost Helen a long time ago when she chose to pursue her study of the anomalies without even hinting of their existence.
He'd waited too long for Stephen, only realizing after his death that the guilt of Stephen's affair with Helen and his own obsession with finding her had doomed them from the start. Claudia had come into his life and then disappeared too quickly, and as much as he admired Jenny Lewis, she was never quite the same. Nature versus Nurture, with the small physical and mental differences between the two often feeling as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps in time he might have come to love Jenny, but Claudia would always be on his mind and that would not have been fair to Jenny.
Now there was James Lester--a man who could hold his own against Nick in a verbal sparring match, with a quick mind and a silver tongue when he chose to flatter instead of insult. A man who had helped him through his convalescence, providing companionship when Nick wanted someone akin to a friend, and a verbal kick up the arse when he needed that too. He'd already grown used to James's quiet presence in his laboratory, finding the soft flick of papers or the gentle tapping on a laptop comforting rather than annoying. He could easily imagine them together in his home, trading parts of the Sunday newspaper and finding greater order growing from the chaos of his life for he knew James would simply take over--and strangely, Nick wouldn't find that a hardship at all. He could imagine touching James with a lover's caress, both of them strong-willed and strong-minded, battling for dominance, which would make surrender of one to the other all the more glorious for both of them.
Only problem--he had no clue if James saw him in the same light.
Nick didn't pay much attention to the tabloids as they were unreliable at the best of times, but he knew the other man had been married with kids. According to some of the rumors Nick had stumbled across, it had been a marriage of convenience--simply a means to gain an advantage in the higher echelons of government that was no longer a necessity. As far as Nick was aware, it had ended in a clean divorce to the benefit of both parties.
"You think too much, Cutter."
Startled, Nick found drug-hazed eyes staring straight at him, only then noticing that he'd absently reached out to lay his hand on the exposed warm skin of James's forearm. When he started to pull back, James grabbed for his hand and held it tight, lacing their fingers. Before Nick could say anything, James closed his eyes, his breathing softening back into sleep. Hidden memories moved out of the gray shadows of his mind and he recalled their positions reversed, of holding on to James tightly while his body slowly healed.
Finally able to start putting together pieces of the puzzle, Nick smiled down at the sleeping man. He settled into the chair and let his head drop onto the pillow, feeling the warmth of mingled breath tingle against his lips. Unable to resist, he leaned in a little closer and kissed the sleep-softened lips. Later they would have time to talk and to decide where they wanted to go with this new element in their stormy relationship but, for now, Nick was content to let go of the hidden demons of his past and place his trust firmly in James Lester's hands.